Larry Clark’s Memory

Megan Bradley

Memory is largely based on lived experience. We remember important events that mark the passage of time, and as we get further away from those events our memories may be distorted; we lose details and make additions along the way. When we see or hear about other people’s experiences they may influence what we believe to be our own past. This paper aims to work through situations of real and imagined memories, focusing on adolescence, a time where we begin to discover who we are. The work of Larry Clark is inextricably linked to memory, memory of both his own past and of the pasts of his audiences. He takes pictures of messed up kids, makes movies about messed up kids and was and, arguably, still is one of those messed up kids, his pictures and films allowing him to exist in a perpetual world of adolescence. His disturbing and ominous film Kids (1995) features end-of-millennium teenagers doing what he did in his own teenage era, causing viewers to project their own selves onto Clark’s imagery because what Clark makes use of is a commonality among all of his viewers: adolescence, in that everyone that sees his work has had one. In looking at the two mediums—film and photography—that Clark uses to express his visual language, I will show how Clark ultimately adopts the more constructed narrative of cinema as he gets further away from his own adolescence to create hyper-realistic visions of the subcultural adolescent groups to which he can no longer be a member. I will look to Clark’s photographic novel Tulsa, his film Kids, and an untitled photographic still from Kids in order to discuss the effects of his visual language.

Tulsa (1963-1971) is a series of photographs that portray Clark’s social milieu in his hometown. Tulsa functions like a diary for Clark, in which he includes images of himself and his friends engaging in the “everyday” activities of drug use, violence and sex. The shock value of the series was high at the time that Clark published it and remains so. Images from Tulsa still resonate within the viewer as the evidence of a lost generation of messed up kids. A second photographic novel,Teenage Lust (1983), depicted another generation of youth that replaced that of Clark and his friends. The Tulsa images are, in a sense, doubled by the younger brothers and sisters of his friends emulating their older siblings. As Clark’s original subjects slowly slip into adulthood or die along the way, Clark maintains his adolescence by picking up with a new set of young ones. Richard Baxstrom and Todd Meyers state that the characters in Clark’s films occupy a space of otherness, and this “otherness is rooted in adolescence as the moment of failing to become human or worse, succumbing to a proper humanity rooted in stasis, immobility and the inability to overcome the paradoxes of human existence.”[1] I would argue that Clark, like his characters, tries to live in between these two options, attempting to avoid stasis by constantly re-creating his past in the present. His compassion for the lost generation is spurred by his desire to nevernot be a part of it, and his work is demonstrative of the way in which he rebels against an adult society of supposed fakery and complacency.

Now sixty-three-years-old, Clark claims that he is “real” and “oldschool” because he hangs out with the kids and, though he is perhaps linked with what was American subculture in his time, he actually made it into the adult world, surpassing the threshold that his work is all about, his position seeming somewhat less valid since he is no longer a member of the group he depicts. Clark is not an adolescent, but he re-creates adolescence for himself, and for his viewers, with every new oeuvre. I can inject Clark’s photos with my own experience, becoming entranced by my own memories, shocking me into the past, altering my past memories just as he alters his own. Considering my relationship to Clark’s images makes me think: that was me. Catherine Keenan states that “photographs do not only supplement memory but actually configure it.”[2] She discusses the personal photograph and, in this sense, I would argue that Clark’s photos are personal because of the commonality of adolescence, which allows for the familiarity that Keenan establishes to be a trait inherent to memory. Marianne Hirsch describes a phenomenon she entitles “post-memory” which she defines as “the relationship of children of survivors of cultural or collective trauma to the experiences of their parents, experiences that they “remember” only as stories and images with which they grew up, but that are so powerful, so monumental, as to constitute memories in their own right.”[3] What I find pertinent about the idea of post-memory in relation to Clark’s work is the generational gap it implies; Clark is my father’s age, and the subculture of his youth is also that of my father’s but I feel as though somehow I remember it. Clark creates this inter-generational collective memory because his subject matter remains the same; he is always depicting youth and “allowing the distances to disappear.”[4] Clark causes me to believe that I was there, in that moment, even though I am now here, just as Clark is. If we survived the traumas of our own adolescent subcultures and made it into the adult world, is it possible for us to be truly compassionate?

Clark originally intended Tulsa to be a film. It ended up being a photographic bookwork because Clark was still very much a part of the world he was depicting. Clark states that when he returned to Tulsa in 1971, his intentions were “to make a one man movie, because the Tulsa scene, you know, I couldn’t bring anybody in.” He elaborates that “then you know, just through the years I got into the lifestyle—the outlaw lifestyle—and so into drugs and everything like that, I certainly couldn’t have made a film, I was just too fucked-up.”[5] That Tulsaended up being a photographic series even though much of Clark’s later and most recent work is in cinema is emblematic, I would argue, of Clark’s adulthood creeping in. The cinematic image is much more controlled for the creator and the viewer; the cinematic image cannot be flipped through, and Clark was still flipping through life when he went back to Tulsa. Clark’s Tulsa pictures are imbued with aura, the recognition of a time and place, and the suggestion that this was his life. It is the sense of innocence in the Tulsa photographs that, I would argue, makes them so compelling. Clark achieves this innocence on two levels: there is the innocence of youth, in the subjects he represents who seem to have little conception of the consequences of their actions, and there is the innocence with which the photos are taken. Clark’s friends were accustomed to his camera’s presence, and the way in which it was as much a part of their group as he was; “It was just a natural thing’ Clark says, “I always had my cameras, but I wasn’t messing with anybody.”[6] Clark goes on to state of his Tulsa pictures that, “for a brief period of time, I was the best photographer in the world, and I’ll never be anywhere that close to good again.”[7] Clark’s self-proclaimed success is recognition of the sense of reality that is evident in Clark’s Tulsa photos; the ‘truth’ in Clark’s Tulsa photos allows the spectator memory of their own past projected through Clark’s lens.

After Tulsa, there was a profound shift in Clark’s work, the success of Tulsa placing him on a different level than the companions the series depicted. As a successful member of the adult world, Clark was still interested in representing adolescent subculture and the Tulsa crew was getting too old. No longer “too fucked up” to make a film, Clark began to incorporate cinematic elements into his work. In a review of a retrospective of Clark’s work, Jill Connor states, “The exhibition veers away from strict photography in a section titled “Collages and Video” made from 1989 to 1992. Clark must have realized that the combination of mass media with his own work gave his vision more clarity.”[8] The fact that Clark is believed to have a vision that he presents with clarity shows the shift that occurred that I believe to be responsible for his adoption of the cinematic. Cinematic images are strictly narrated and interpretation is minimal for both the creator and the viewer. In the Tulsa images, Clark was involved in the events he depicted, but with the shift to cinema, Clark employs strict narration to assert what he is trying to say—what occurred naturally in Tulsa.

What was so compelling in Tulsa was the sense of reality that Clark presented; this realness becomes the basis for his cinematic endeavours and is taken to a level the photographic cannot reach; in fact, I would argue that his films, Untitled (1994), Kids (1995), Another Day in Paradise (1998), Bully (2001) and Ken Park (2005) are almost too real. The documentary-style imagery ofTulsa is transposed onto the fictional worlds depicted in his films, and the power of the moving image to completely immerse the spectator in the narrative is paramount. The possibilities for reality in film are examined by Christian Metz, who states, “There is thus a great difference between photography and the cinema, which is an art of fiction and narration and has considerable projective power. The movie spectator is absorbed, not by a has been there but by a sense ofthere it is.”[9] It is fascinating that Clark’s adoption of cinema to present what did not actually happen occurred when he could no longer depict what did actually happen through photography. The capacity for film to present a kind of hyper-real situation is thus used paradoxically, the content being fictional. It seems appropriate, then, for Clark to enter the world of cinema, because he himself wants to enter this constructed ‘reality’. Metz identifies the phenomenon by which cinema has the power to convince, “to inject the reality of motion into the unreality of the image and thus to render the world of the imagination more real than it had ever been.”[10] Clark imagines himself within his films, basing them on subcultures he desires to remain a part of.

As disturbing as his films may be, Clark is enchanted by “the outlaw” life of youth and the otherness of adolescence. However, his escape from adulthood into otherness is a trap for his adolescent subjects. Clark survived the dangerous world of his own youth subculture but nevertheless wants to remain inside of it. That there will always be more “fucked-up” kids for Clark to portray leads me to question whether his work actually seeks to help these kids, or simply works to help Clark stay within the margins of society and ‘keep it real’.
I am particularly interested in Clark’s film Kids (1995) because of its relationship to a particular photographic image. When Kids was released it was considered shocking. While the film is documentary-like because of the way it is shot and because of how it seems unscripted, it was, in fact, highly-scripted. The film was written by Harmony Korine, a real kid living in the world that Clark wanted to depict. Clark told Korine stories that he wanted the movie to evince, and Korine made them into a fluent screenplay. The story is devastating and repulsive; it offends senses of morality and challenges the perception of the American Dream. Kids is about a group of teenagers and preteens living in New York and doing drugs, stealing, fighting, drinking and fucking, all of which is portrayed vividly and explicitly on screen. The overarching story figures around Telly, whose main goal in life is to de-flower virgins. Jenny, a lover from Telly’s past, finds out that she has contracted HIV, and the only person she has slept with is Telly. The rest of the movie focuses on Jenny’s desperate search to find Telly before he sleeps with anyone else. Near the end of the movie, Jenny finds herself at a party and takes a hit ecstasy before continuing her search. When she finally finds Telly at another party, he is already in bed with another young virgin. Disgusted and strung out, Jenny passes out on one of the couches. The next and final scene shows Telly’s best friend waking up in the bathtub at the same house party, whiskey bottle in hand. He walks out of the bathroom to find the blacked-out Jenny. In possibly the most upsetting scene in the movie, Telly’s best friend proceeds to rape the passed-out Jenny, indicative of the extremes to which Clark goes to in depicting America’s youth.

My interest in this film comes from my projected relationship to Jenny and how I recognize this projected self, a year after seeing the movie, in a photographic still image from the film. This relationship stems from a complex interplay of the projection that occurs between audience and cinema and the interplay that occurs in photography. Laura Mulvey articulates how cinema has been structured by a phallocentric unconscious in which the female form is the sight of pleasure for the male viewer. Mulvey states:

Woman … stands in patriarchal culture as the signifier for the male other bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer not maker, of meaning.[11]

In Kids, Jenny bears the tragedy of HIV/AIDS—the victim of Telly’s ignorance. Telly and his best friend are also victims, but it is difficult to feel compassionate toward them. In Kids, Clark has affectively transferred the fantasies and obsessions of men into a rude awakening of how these can be devastating to everyone involved. The suggestion of the impending death of Jenny affects me in a number of ways: I relate to her as a female that has been used by a male, and I relate to her role as what Mulvey describes as the bearer of meaning—Jenny is the bearer of the meaning of HIV/AIDS, a meaning that has been imposed on her by Telly, who told her that she was his “first”. Jenny is consequently forced to deal with the fact that she is HIV-positive, and that this status was caused by a man’s—Telly’s—fantasies and obsessions.

Figure 1 Larry Clark Untitled (Kids), 1995
Portfolio of 15 C-prints
15 1/4 X 18 1/2 inches (38.7 X 47 cm)
Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York.

A photographic still from Clark’s Untitled (Kids) (1995, fig. 1) causes me to feel even more associated with Jenny. The photo depicts Jenny strung out in the elevator on the way to the house party where she will find Telly having sex with another virgin/victim. I find this image compositionally striking and the expression on Jenny’s face extremely evocative. I saw this image after seeing Kids, and it produces in me such an emotional reaction that I feel as though the movie has now become a part of my personal memories, the photographic still causing me to revert back not only to the film but also to my lived experience. I grieve for Jenny’s impending death when I confront the photographic still more so than I do when I watch the movie, which I attribute to the malleability of the photo, as opposed to the structured narrative of cinema. The photo signifies death to me in a number of ways: it signifies the death of the present moment; the death of my adolescence; and the character’s death which reflects my own fears of death, having projected myself onto the character of Jenny. The image of Jenny becomes a death of the present moment because I instantly revert back to memories I associate with it so that my mental presence (that which is here and now) disappears and I lose myself in the image, falling into a moment of the past that exists only in the form of a fictional experience. I am reminded of a character in Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (1991) for whom “the sheer memory of another time causes his mind to foreclose the present moment.”[12] The adolescent characters in Van Sant’s film “drift through a world where they don’t belong.”[13] Imagined or real affinities to Jenny disassociate me from the adult world of which I am supposed to belong, yet they do not offer me anything more than a fictional world created by Clark within which I could not belong. The photographic still of Jenny brings me back to the time and space in which I was when watching Kids; I am thrown into an odd mental space where I am dealing with two intersecting types of memory, one of the imagination of myself within that film, and the other of my own lived experience, of my youth, where I was not infected with HIV/AIDS but could have been. This “it could have been me effect,” discussed by Hirsch in the context of post-memory, takes hold, and it bothers me that a work of fiction is what makes me realize this. It is the death of the present moment that throws me into thinking about a past where it was not me, and I mourn guiltily because it comes from an imagination not my own. The second death I mourn is the death of my adolescence, a time I lived through and will never experience again, but feel strongly attached to, it having formed my present self, it having occurred not so long ago. Both the film and the photo remind me that my adolescence is over because I am not doing those things now that I was doing then, the things that made my affinities to the film so strong. Finally, I mourn the death of Jenny because of our shared gender and our potential positions, as the bearers of meaning. The mourning of Jenny’s death permeates into my present life, perpetuating a slight but constant fear of my own death. Roland Barthes discusses the mourning that can occur when looking at personal photographs of ‘what has ceased to be,’ and how the photographic image becomes a small death. I think that the reason I feel a guilty or shameful kind of grief in relation to the photographic still of Jenny is that it is not my own personal photograph, and its quality of ‘ceasing to be’ seems falsified by the fact that it, for me, ‘never was,’ except in its moment on the cinematic screen. My personal relationship to this photographic image has been entirely constructed.

I have argued of Clark that in his later work, he takes up cinema to create a constant adolescence for himself as he gets further and further away from it. I try to denounce Clark for this because I can’t help but think of him as contradictory, as rejecting adulthood while simultaneously benefiting from it. I find Clark’s work difficult because he is no longer one of the adolescents he depicts and could be read as a voyeur. It is hard not to be inclined to think that Clark is living vicariously through his characters, using them as his medium to maintain his rebellious persona, but at the same time, I find his work so affecting that I cannot simply write it off as perverse. There is too strong a sense of “punctum” in his imagery. I believe this sting of “punctum,” the element of the photograph that Barthes argues reaches out and grabs us, stems from where Clark’s work began, the photographing of his friends in Tulsa. In searching for the punctum in the photographic still of Jenny, my process began with the movie that became a part of my memory and entangled with my own adolescent past. While I cannot quite identify the still’s punctum, I nevertheless believe it to be there, engaging me in a process of dealing with a past that I could have had. Clark’s work does allow for compassion, presenting the viewer with devastating, ‘real-life’ situations, and necessitating a working through of real or imagined affinities in order to cope with a shameful sense of mourning traumas we did not experience.

Aletti, Vince. “First Break: Larry Clark,” Art Forum. 40:9 (May 2002) p 27.
Baxstrom, Richard and Todd Meyers. “Cinema Thinking Affect: The Hustler’s Soft Magic,” Parachute 01_02_03_2006. pp 98-119.
Connor, Jill. “Death is More Perfect Than Life,” Afterimage. 32:6 (May/ June 2005) pp 33-6.
Hirsch, Marianne, “Projected Memory: Holocaust Photographs in Personal and Public Fantasy,” in Mieke Bal, Jonathan Crewe, Leo Spitzer, eds., Acts of Memory: Cultural Recall in the Present. Hanover and London: Dartmouth College, 1999, pp 2-23.
Keenan, Catherine. “On the Relationship Between Personal Photographs and Individual Memory,” History of Photography 22:1 (Spring 1998) pp 60-4.
Metz , Christian, trans. Michael Taylor. “On the Impression of Reality in the Cinema,” Film Language: A Semiotics of the Cinema. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1991.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Visual and Other Pleasures. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1989.
Pataphysics Magazine, “Interview with Larry Clark” Pataphysics Magazine: Holiday Resort Issue (2003).

1 Richard Baxstrom and Todd Meyers, “Cinema Thinking Affect: The Hustler’s Soft Magic,” Parachute, 01_02_03_2006. 112.
2 Catherine Keenan, “On the Relationship Between Personal Photographs and Individual Memory,History of Photography 22:1 (Spring 1998): 60.
3 Marianne Hirsch, “Projected Memory: Holocaust Photographs in Personal and Public Fantasy,” in Mieke Bal, Jonathan Crewe, Leo Spitzer, eds., Acts of Memory: Cultural Recall in the Present (Hanover and London: Dartmouth College, 1999): 8.
4 Ibid. 10
5 Pataphysics Magazine, “Interview with Larry Clark,” Pataphysics Magazine: Holiday Resort Issue (2003).
6 Vince Aletti, “First Break: Larry Clark,” Art Forum, 40:9 (May 2002): 27.
7 Id.
8 Jill Connor, “Death is More Perfect Than Life,” Afterimage, 32:6 (May/ June 2005: 33-36.
9 Christian Metz, trans. Michael Taylor, “On the Impression of Reality in the Cinema,” Film Language: A Semiotics of the Cinema (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991: 6.
10 Ibid. 15
11 Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Visual and Other Pleasures (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1989): 15.
12 Baxstrom and Meyers, 98
13 Id.